Why America Will Never Hit Reset With Iran

Even the reasonable people in Washington are still talking about containing Tehran -- which is why the United States is about to squander a rare opportunity.


What’s going to happen with the Iran deal? Let me go out on a not-very-long limb with some not-very-bold predictions, and then tell you what I think the real issue is.

First, the deal will go through, although it will probably take a presidential veto to stymie congressional skepticism. To be sure, a lot of senators and congressmen will posture for the cameras, the GOP will vote in lockstep for mostly partisan reasons, and GOP presidential aspirants will say some remarkably offensive and foolish things about it. But key representatives like Sander Levin have already signaled their support for the deal, others will follow suit, and U.S. President Barack Obama will almost certainly have the votes he needs to veto any legislation that would kill the deal.

Why will it go through? In part, because Congress normally gives the president a lot of leeway in foreign policy. But also because the deal is in America’s national interest and clearly superior to the available alternatives. Iran is cutting its enrichment capacity by more than two-thirds, getting rid of all but a miniscule fraction of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, and has agreed to an unprecedented degree of inspections and monitoring going forward. In theory, Iran could try to cheat in various small ways, but it couldn’t do enough to get it across the nuclear weapons threshold without being caught well in advance of weaponization.

Critics like Mark Dubowitz have worked mightily to come up with proposals that are better than the offer on the table, but they’ve come up empty-handed. In the end, we either implement this deal, or we will have: 1) a collapse of the sanctions regime and an Iran that is free to develop its nuclear capacity with few constraints, or 2) a preventive war that would give Iran a powerful incentive to acquire a bomb and only reduce its capacity to do temporarily. Rejecting the deal would also show Iran’s people that electing a more moderate government and cooperating with the United States doesn’t pay off, just as Iran’s hard-liners have long warned. Plus, it would badly damage Washington’s relations with the other five major powers that helped put the deal together. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out which of these alternatives is better for America and the world.

My second prediction: The deal will work. By “work,” I mean it will keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapon for the duration of the agreement and possibly beyond. It will not bring peace to the Middle East; it will not fix the Greek economy; it will not cure cancer; it will not get the Red Sox better pitching or put Tiger Woods back in the winner’s circle; and it will not resolve all of our disagreements with Tehran. But it will do what it is designed to do and what Obama pledged to do: It will keep Iran on this side of the nuclear threshold.

But won’t those clever Iranians cheat? No, because the deal is clearly in Iran’s interest too. And make no mistake: Iran was never — repeat, never — going to sign any agreement from which it didn’t derive tangible benefits. If you think otherwise, you are living in a dream world. Moreover, the sort of deal critics say they’d like to see — one where Iran capitulated to every single one of our demands — is precisely the sort of deal that it would be eager to escape as soon as it could, assuming that it would even sign such a deal at all. If you want a deal that both sides will abide by voluntarily, it has to provide benefits for both. That’s just Diplomacy 101.

And let’s not forget that there is no evidence Iran is dead set on having an actual nuclear weapon, and it certainly hasn’t been hellbent on getting one as soon as possible. Indeed, U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded it has no nuclear weapons program today, a position they have held consistently since 2007. That isn’t all that surprising: As I’ve argued before, Iran has sound, strategic reasons for not getting the bomb, just as it has sound, strategic reasons to want the potential to acquire one should circumstances warrant it at some point in the future. But if Iran were to move in that direction under this agreement, the world would know it almost immediately, sanctions would snap back, military action would become more likely, and all the benefits Iran gains from the deal would go right out the window.

So what does worry me? That’s easy. Having failed to kill the deal itself, hard-liners in Iran, the United States, and Israel will now turn their attention to making sure it produces no broader political benefits.

Instead of using this agreement as a first step toward a more cordial and business-like relationship, these groups will try to poison U.S.-Iranian relations in other ways and keep the cold war between Washington and Iran going into perpetuity. Nevermind that younger Iranians despise the clerical regime and are eager for more contact with the West (and especially the United States). Nevermind that Iran and the United States do have interests in common, including hostility toward both the Taliban and the Islamic State. Pay no attention to the fact that Russia, China, and our European allies are going to start dealing with Iran, making money, and gaining influence in the process. Ignore the fact that the United States would have more leverage with other Middle East countries if it had diplomatic relations with Iran. And don’t even think about the possibility that better relations with Iran, far from emboldening it, might give it good reason to rein in those activities that Americans rightly oppose, such as its support for radical groups in various places.

In short, there’s a real danger that having secured a sound deal, the United States will squander the opportunity — not the certainty, but the opportunity — to turn a new corner in its deeply troubled relationship with Iran. Even strong and eloquent supporters of the deal — such as my colleague Nicholas Burns — lean in that direction when they emphasize that the United States must still work hard at “containing” Iran. I understand that view, but making this the top priority in our future dealings with Iran — even if only rhetorically — will reinforce Tehran’s own suspicions of U.S. motives and exacerbate the pattern of mistrust that has colored U.S.-Iranian relations for many decades.

Look, nobody should be naïve about the obstacles to a meaningful détente with Iran or unmindful of the ways in which our interests clash. But Iran is not some weird Shiite reincarnation of the Third Reich; its military power is quite modest, and its actual capacity to cause trouble in the region is (fortunately) limited. Indeed, contrary to what we often hear, its efforts to build influence haven’t been especially successful. And the next time you hear somebody harping about its role as the “world’s greatest exporter of terrorism,” remember that the peace-loving United States has done far more to destabilize the greater Middle East in recent years — beginning with the boneheaded invasion of Iraq in 2003 — generating terrorists galore in the process.

In the months and years ahead, opposition to a better relationship with Iran will come from the same organizations and individuals who are leading the fight against the nuclear deal — namely, the government of Israel and the hard-line elements of the Israel lobby. It used to be taboo to talk openly about the lobby’s impact on U.S. Middle East policy, but that is no longer the case. One reason for this change is that any informed citizen would have to be deaf, dumb, and blind not to see that the principal organized opposition to this deal is coming from the mainstream organizations in the lobby — AIPAC, WINEP, JINSA, FDD, ZOA, the Conference of Presidents, etc. — backed by ardent pro-Israel donors, such as Michael Steinhart and Sheldon Adelson. J Street and other pro-Israel peace organizations are backing the deal, along with prominent intellectuals like Peter Beinart and a clear plurality of American Jews, but the biggest and most influential organizations remain dead set against it. Were it not for their opposition, this deal would have been easier to negotiate, and Congress wouldn’t stand a chance of stopping it.

The lobby’s likely defeat reminds us that AIPAC and its sister organizations do not in fact “control” U.S. Middle East policy. No lobbying group wins every fight — not AIPAC, not Big Pharma, not even the National Rifle Association — and especially not when issues of war and peace are on the line. I suspect the heads of many of the hard-line organizations know they are going to lose this time around, but fighting on keeps the donor money coming in and forces the administration and other supporters of the deal to work overtime to ensure its success. Even if they know they’re going to lose this round, AIPAC et al. want to discourage politicians from taking them on again.

And make no mistake, these same individuals and organizations are committed to ensuring the special relationship with Israel is unaffected and that the United States does not start using its leverage to pressure Israel about its settlements policy or its other activities that threaten U.S. interests. That goal will be facilitated if this deal collapses after its expiration date, or even better, before. The last thing the lobby wants is a United States that is on decent terms with (nearly) every country in the Middle East and has no “special relationships” with any of them. It looks like Obama has won this round — because his negotiating team crafted a good deal — but the broader fight over the future direction of U.S. Middle East policy is just beginning.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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